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6 Democratic presidential candidates converge in Cedar Rapids with one message: Beat Trump. They just disagree on how.

Five U.S. Senate hopefuls also attend Linn County Democrats' Hall of Fame dinner

Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii (right) talks with Bret Nilles, Linn County Democratic Party chairman, as Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado takes the dais Sunday at the Linn County Democrats Hall of Fame Dinner at the DoubleTree by Hilton in Cedar Rapids. Six Democratic presidential hopefuls attended the event. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii (right) talks with Bret Nilles, Linn County Democratic Party chairman, as Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado takes the dais Sunday at the Linn County Democrats Hall of Fame Dinner at the DoubleTree by Hilton in Cedar Rapids. Six Democratic presidential hopefuls attended the event. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — With six presidential hopefuls and five U.S. Senate candidates on the program, there was no denying that the annual Linn County Democrats’ Hall of Fame Dinner was a political event.

For the most part, however, many of the 350 or so Democrats who gathered at the DoubleTree by Hilton in Cedar Rapids on Sunday didn’t think it would be a defining night in the campaign for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

“I’m not expecting to hear anything that will make up my mind tonight,” Cedar Rapids Democrat Jessica Camacho said. She likes three candidates in the field of 19 Democrats.

“I’m waiting for one of them to stand out — and to beat Trump.”

That was one thing the presidential hopefuls agreed on — defeating President Donald Trump.

“The most important job of the Democratic national party by any measure is defeating Donald Trump,” former Maryland Rep. John Delaney said. “There is nothing that compares with the enormity of that task.”

While there was less agreement on which priorities are most important, the strategy is pretty basic, California businessman Tom Steyer told the crowd.

“This has got to be our time, the time when we organize and show up at record levels, so we don’t just beat Mr. Trump if he still is in office by some fluke,” but defeat Republicans everywhere, Steyer said.

That includes winning the Iowa U.S. Senate seat that will be on the ballot in 2020. Five candidates for the nomination — Cal Woods, Kimberly Graham, Theresa Greenfield, Eddie Mauro and Michael Franken — also spoke to the Hall of Fame audience.

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Larry Nelson of Cedar Rapids had seen “a large number” of the candidates, but was looking forward to hearing some for the first time.

“I’m checking some off my list,” Nelson said. “When we get some of the far left out of the way, perhaps the center will rise.”

Appealing to the center

Delaney and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet made that argument — that Trump will be defeated only if Democrats extend their appeal beyond progressives.

Democrats need to focus on the 9 million people who voted for Barack Obama twice and Donald Trump once, Bennet said. That includes voters in nearly one-third of Iowa counties.

“We’re not going to trick those people into voting for us with free stuff, with unfunded programs or more empty promises ... if we become the party of coastal elites,” Bennet said.

Delaney, who said he’s running “to capture the center,” said that while it’s “incredibly important” to defeat Trump, voters won’t be won over with more partisanship and gridlock.

“They need solutions. They need us to build infrastructure, to double the Earned Income Tax Credit — common sense solutions that matter to hardworking Americans,” Delaney said. America needs a president who will “restore a notion of common purpose to who we are as a people.”

Some minds made up

Regardless of what the candidates had to say, Kay Hale of Ely didn’t expect to hear anything that would make her change her support for Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who also talked about reaching out to voters in states, like Iowa, that supported Trump in 2016.

“It won’t be anything we haven’t heard before,” said Hale, who was inducted into the county party Hall of Fame along with Myrt Bowers, Kay Jackson and Nan Riley. “That might happen in a couple of weeks at the (Liberty and Justice) dinner.” That’s the Iowa Democratic Party’s annual fall fundraiser where past presidential hopefuls have had breakout moments.

Roy Porterfield of Cedar Rapids also doubted his mind would be changed.

“As long as Mayor Pete (Buttigieg) is in the race I think my mind is unchangeable,” he said.

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Although Porterfield already had landed on a presidential candidate, he had “no clear idea” whom to support in the race for the Democratic Senate nomination.

“All the down-ballot candidates are getting drowned out by the presidential race,” he said. “It’s my first time to hear most of them, and I might hear something to get me interested in following one of them.”

A birthday celebration

Before settling in to hear from the candidates, the audience sang “Happy Birthday” to California Sen. Kamala Harris and Senate hopeful Greenfield.

“I’m going to make a wish,” Harris said when handed a candle. “Guess what it is.”

If there was any doubt, Harris made it clear.

“It is in the name of the people I stand before you tonight, prepared to defeat Donald Trump, to say, ‘Goodbye, we’ve seen enough,’ ” said Harris, who referred to the president as “the criminal in the White House ... a walking indictment in a red tie.”

Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard stuck to her stump speech without mentioning her recent accusation that she has been “smeared” by Hillary Clinton as a “Russian asset” for her defiance of the national party establishment in 2016.

Referring to the hatred and bigotry in the country, “so much of it coming from the current occupant of the White House,” Gabbard said it’s time to get back to the nation’s roots.

“When we think about who we are as Americans and what patriotism really means,” Gabbard said, “what could be more patriotic than caring for and fighting for the well-being of our fellow Americans no matter where we come from, no matter our race, our ethnicity, our religion or who we love, all of these things are too often used to divide us.”

Talking up Iowa ties

Klobuchar played up her connections with Iowa, “which I can see from my porch.”

“You are first in corn to hogs to food on a stick,” she said. “We are first in Minnesota in sweet corn, sugar beets, peas and turkeys ... and the world’s only museum completely devoted to Spam.”

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Turning serious, Klobuchar said the 2020 race is about a person who will be “president for all of America ... not just for half of America.”

If Democrats want to take on the big issues facing the country, it won’t be enough just to win where Democrats typically win, Klobuchar said.

“If we really want to get this done, then we’ve got to not just eke by a victory, we’ve got to win big,” Klobuchar said. To do that, Democrats need to build a “blue wall” around battleground states such as Iowa, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin “and make Donald Trump pay for it.”

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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